The Things Other People Say to Small-Town Jews

June 26, 2019Debra Doppelt Karplus

As I was growing up in one of Chicago’s northernmost neighborhoods, West Rogers Park, most everyone was Jewish. Nearby Devon Avenue had numerous delicatessens; as you walked along the avenue, many of its shops had Jewish proprietors. On Jewish holidays, our elementary school was closed – most students were Jewish as were the teachers and staff. We were members of a Conservative temple, and in addition to attending services there, I also remember going to shul (Yiddish for synagogue) with my grandparents who lived within a couple of miles.

Moving north to suburban Wilmette as I entered junior high, our family again settled in a mostly Jewish neighborhood. My brothers had their b’nei mitzvah and I attended Sunday school at a synagogue that was within walking distance of home.

I went off to college at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (CU), approximately 120 miles south of Chicago, and nearly 50 years later, I’m still living here. According to various online sources, Champaign-Urbana has approximately 238,000 residents – tiny, compared to Chicago. It also lacks the same kind of Jewish presence I felt growing up in Chicago’s suburbs and in some of the big cities I’ve visited.

Looking through the current directory of Sinai Temple, the synagogue where I’m a longtime member, I count fewer than 300 families and individual members. There are countless unaffiliated, non-practicing Jews living in our midst, but they are not particularly visible as Jews here. Though I have many friends in CU, most are not synagogue members. Instead they are unaffiliated Jews, members of a church, or, as one friend succinctly put it, “believers but not belongers.”

I try to be patient with my friends who aren’t Jewish, who say things that make me want to laugh (and that might make others uncomfortable). For example, the father of one of my friends, upon learning I’m Jewish said, “Oh, I knew a Jewish fella once.” I chose not to respond to that comment. Someone else asked me, when first visiting my house, “What do I do when I visit a Jewish person’s home?” I knew he was asking purely out of respect, so I responded with this: “The same thing you do when you visit any other home.”

Then there was the time I made a professional visit to a nursing home in a little town just south of here. It was happenstance that I’d packed a bagel in my sack lunch, prompting the person I visited to make some inferences and stereotypical statements about Jewish food. I let that one roll by, too, because there wasn’t much to say. And then, of course, there are the explanations I find myself offering again and again: “No, Hanukkah isn’t a Jewish Christmas; it’s not a significant holiday the way Passover, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are!”

I enjoy bringing friends to Friday night services, to give them a feel of what to expect at a Shabbat service and to take some of the mystery out of Jewish worship. I try to choose services with lively contemporary music or a special program or speaker. I opt to do as little explaining as possible other than to inform my guests that the book reads from right to left and that they should stand up and sit down when everyone else does. (Although many people who attend services don’t read or understand Hebrew, the transliterations are in the book, so everyone can read along as they choose.)

I enjoy sharing my Jewish knowledge and passion for Judaism with others, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to so here in my own community. Welcoming people who aren’t Jewish to experience a Jewish holiday or fun social event is a great way to take the mystique out of being Jewish.

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